Elderly bank robber Walter Unbehaun had just been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison Thursday when he had a request that raised eyebrows in the federal courtroom in Chicago.
Unbehaun, a career criminal who told police he’d robbed a Niles bank last year because he wanted to go back “home” to prison, asked U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman if he could serve his time at the Greenville penitentiary outside St. Louis. The medium-security facility had nice medical services and better job opportunities to pass the time, he said.
“They put me to work there,” said the balding, gray haired 74-year-old who used a cane for support.
The judge frowned. She said she’d make the recommendation but added it was “rather sad” to have a defendant who knew the ins and outs of the federal prison system so well.
It was a poignant end to what Unbehaun’s attorney, Richard McLeese, called “one of the saddest and most disturbing cases” he’d defended in more than 30 years practicing law.
Prosecutors acknowledged the case was unusual but sought a minimum 5-year prison, saying the public still needed to be protected from Unbehaun despite his age.
Unbehaun’s life of crime began in 1963, according to court records. The Army vet amassed nearly a dozen state and federal convictions ranging from petty theft to armed robbery. In 1969, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for kidnapping a 19-year-old girl. After his release, he robbed a bank in Morton Grove in 1998 and received another decade behind bars, records show.
When Unbehaun was finally released in 2011, he lived for a time with his sister in South Carolina but ended up in a studio apartment in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, alone, broke and suffering from the early stages of dementia.
In February 2013, he walked with the aid of a cane into the Harris Bank branch at 7077 W. Dempster St. in Niles, handed a teller a note written on a bank slip and announced a robbery, according to court records.
“This is a holdup. I have nothing to lose,” the teller quoted Unbehaun as saying. He then opened his jacket to reveal a silver gun tucked into his waistband. Moments later, he walked out with $4,178 in cash.
A few days later, police arrested Unbehan at a nearby motel and found a loaded handgun, a box of .32 caliber cartridges and most of the cash in the room.
According to court records, Unbehaun told police he had spent most of his adult life in prison and “wanted to go back as he felt more comfortable in prison than out.”
In a letter to the judge earlier this month, Unbehaun said that at the time he robbed the bank he was desperate and “thought going back to prison was my only other option.”
Before his sentence was imposed Thursday, Unbehaun limped up to the podium and apologized. But after more than a year awaiting trial in Kankakee County Jail, he clearly wasn't as keen on life behind bars anymore. Unbehaun said he now hoped to live out his days at a retirement home sketching and painting pictures.
“I've had a heck of a life, OK?” Unbehaun said in a deep voice. “But I don't want to die in prison.”